Historical Analogies: Useful or Harmful to Political Discourse?

By Jackie Howell

This week’s readings provided a thought-provoking question: Are historical analogies useful or harmful to political discourse? Gordon and Moyn present two opposing arguments on the tool of analogy; Gordon argues that historical analogies matter to advance our understanding of the present, while Moyn discusses the pitfalls of comparative historical analysis. While both are compelling arguments, one must use historical analogies when appropriate. Historical analogies can be overplayed to appeal to a particular audience, and one can misuse historical analogies to misconstrue current events. As described by Victoria de Grazia, “calling people fascists has been as American as apple pie,” but it is crucial to understand the difference between fascism as a political label and fascism as a historical phenomenon. Otherwise, the public becomes desensitized to fascism and the dangers it represents, leading to an apathetic society.

“History repeats itself” is a common catch-phrase that bears the cyclical image of events repeating every so often. It is human nature to compare and contrast, but does drawing a comparison between the past and present detract from the consequences of such events? While drawing comparisons can be a useful tool of analogy, comparative analysis can often be misleading and can downplay what requires attention, as argued by Charles Maier (Moyn 2020). However, labelling a historical event (such as the Holocaust) as “unique” can often lead to a hierarchy of traumas, risking the implication that some lives are more valuable than others – which ironically plays into the narrative of Trump-ism.

Understanding fascism, populism, and authoritarianism requires historical analogy to determine the similarities and differences between the various definitions over time. Particularly, fascism in the 20th century can be compared and contrasted with fascism in the 21st century. While events are not identical, the rise to power and the appeal to the masses bear a similarity, even if they occurred nearly a century apart. The most telling sign of fascism is the desire to create a dichotomy of us-versus-them. Populist parties have gained significant political breakthrough across Europe, indicating a phenomenon that is becoming common across continents. To understand the current dangers of the populist or fascist phenomenon, it is useful to study Mussolini’s appeal to the masses or the Nazi-Fascist New Order to learn why and how these leaders gained power.

Ignoring history will not transform the present, and comparing the present with the past can often excuse or distract. As proposed by Moyn, clarifying the similarities and differences to bring about a better future must be the goal when using historical analogies. Analogies can guide scholars and resonate with the public, but the focus of the analogy must be on how to avoid repeating harmful or dangerous behaviours. It is easy to compare President Trump with other fascist leaders; however, it is important to understand the social, economic, and political events that created these leaders to prevent a Trump 2.0.

Works Cited

de Grazia, Victoria. “What We Don’t Understand about Fascism.” Zocalo Public Square, 13 Aug. 2020, zocalopublicsquare.org/2020/08/13/understand-fascism-american-history-mussolini-hitler-20th-century/ideas/essay/

“DEMOS Identifies Four Types of Populism in European Political Parties.” Democratic Efficacy and the Varieties of Populism in Europe, demos-h2020.eu/en/demos-identifies-four-types-of-populism-in-european-political-parties

Gordon, Peter E. “Why Historical Analogy Matters.” The New York Review, 7 Jan. 2020, nybooks.com/daily/2020/01/07/why-historical-analogy-matters/

Moyn, Samuel. “The Trouble with Comparisons.” The New York Review, 19 May 2020, nybooks.com/daily/2020/05/19/the-trouble-with-comparisons/

Historical analogy – does it help or harm?

Michaela Bax-Leaney

As Peter Gordon and Samuel Moyn converse with one another about the efficacy of historical analogy and comparison – particularly in the context of fascism and the current political climate – there appears to be a misunderstanding between the two authors which de Grazia addresses very early on in her article. It seems that Gordon and Moyn are basing their articles on two different meanings of fascism – Moyn engages with fascism as a historical phenomenon, while Gordon’s definition extends more broadly to the political label. De Grazia strikes an important balance in her piece. There is the essential task of knowing and remembering fascism as an historical event – it led to some of the worst suffering humanity has borne witness to. However, there is a very real risk of oversimplifying that event and applying it to modern goings on. That is not to say that fascism is not a real and present threat in the 21st century, but rather, an effort must be made to understand it for what it is, rather than as a shadow or imitation of something else.

There also appears to be a disconnect in the language employed by Gordon and Moyn in the use of analogy vs comparison. Gordon very intentionally prefers analogy, and makes a point of it, writing that “there’s an important difference between analogy and comparison but I’ll ignore that difference here.” Moyn, on the other hand, titles his piece “The Trouble with Comparison.” This may simply be a matter of semantics, but one wonders if the difference speaks to a broader misunderstanding between the two. After all, they both seem to be working towards a similar overall point – that there is a very critical need to address and seek to understand fascism in the modern context, and historical sensibility is very necessary in achieving that understanding. While their disagreements on how exactly to undertake the historical sensibility do differ, and I do not believe those differences can be boiled down to word choice and a slightly different working definition of the word fascism, they both recognize the benefits and pitfalls of analogy/comparison, and caution against similar things; namely, that historical comparison, if it is to be done, be done very cautiously, intentionally, and in recognition of De Grazia’s point that modern fascism ultimately does need to be recognized as its own phenomenon. In coming away from their articles, I am left wondering how best to go about that, in an actionable and practical sense, rather than just the theoretical.

Works Cited

Victoria de Grazia, “What We Don’t Understand about Fascism” Zocalo Public Square

https://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2020/08/13/understand-fascism-american-historymussolini- hitler-20th-century/ideas/essay/

Peter E. Gordon, “Why Historical Analogy Matters,” NYR Daily (7 January 2020),

https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2020/01/07/why-historical-analogy-matters/

Samuel Moyn, “The Trouble with Comparisons,” NYR Daily (19 May 2020)

https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2020/05/19/the-trouble-with-comparisons/